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Fawn Sharp with Matthew Randazzo V.

In the sacred homelands of the mighty Sioux, a line has been drawn that will be defended by a nation of tribal nations – and held. 

At stake is the survival of the sovereignty of all tribes and the literal survival of their citizens.

The line was drawn by the sovereign-elected governments of two federally recognized tribal nations, the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, that have instituted strict stay-at-home orders and curfews to arrest the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.

Because both of the impacted Sioux tribes are surrounded in South Dakota by state and local governments that have refused to issue stay-at-home orders despite major regional outbreaks, the tribes have instituted brief public safety checkpoints on highways entering their lands to prevent access to those who present a high medical risk or who are not executing an essential service.

Their actions are not unique. Multiple tribes in Washington State, where we reside, have restricted or shut down access to their ancestral lands to protect their vulnerable citizens. Some, like the Quinault Nation [which President Sharp serves as President] or the Makah Nation, have consequently managed to completely avoid any COVID infections thanks to this and other science-based policies.

The Sioux are not so lucky in having state government partners like we have in Washington, nor do they border the safety of the Pacific Ocean like the Makah and Quinault.

Nonetheless, the Sioux's rights are explicitly defined by federal legal precedent and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which says no outsider can “without consent of the Indians first had and obtained, pass through” the lands of the Sioux.

Unfortunately, the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, is a couple of centuries behind the times and has demanded, with Trump administration support, that both tribes remove the checkpoints and open their reservations to external commerce without any public safety precautions.

That’s right, in the year 2020, American leaders are forcefully trying to expose Native Americans – who have cumulatively suffered more historically from epidemics than any other population on Earth – to a highly contagious and deadly virus, all to avoid minor inconveniences to commerce. 

The leaders of both tribes rejected this outrageous attack on their sovereignty.

The Trump administration responded by threatening to defund their law enforcement and even to forcibly remove the checkpoints – which could lead to a confrontation that will be hard to contain.

That’s why the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has sued. It is our prayer that this fight is settled in the federal courts where it is currently headed – and not between armed men on lonely highways.

Behind the Sioux stand over 500 Tribal Nations, who know dearly the value of their hard-won sovereignty.

Though they differ in multitudinous ways, every single Native American government that coexists with and within the United States can be expected to speak with a single voice on this life-and-death issue.

The message is simple.

Never again.

Never, ever again.

Never, ever again will an outside government use infectious diseases as a weapon against the sovereignty, health, and peace of mind of Native Americans.

President Donald Trump, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem: take note.

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You began a standoff that you will lose and will cause your name to echo with infamy and disgrace to future generations like those of Jeffrey Amherst, Henry Bouquet, and William Trent.

The great Native leader and civil rights icon Billy Frank Jr. always reminded us, “Tell your story!”

This particular story cannot be forgotten.

On June 23, 1763, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, supreme commander of the British military in North America, wrote to a subordinate overseeing a military campaign against the proud Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo tribal nations. 

“Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?” wrote Amherst.

His subordinate, a mercenary named Henry Bouquet - who fittingly perished during a later yellow fever outbreak in Florida – responded that he would “try to inoculate the bastards with some blankets that may fall into their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself.”

Amherst was pleased, writing back that he endorsed the use of infected blankets “as well as every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”

The most awful and chilling fact of this episode is that, ten days prior to Amherst’s initial order to engage in biological warfare against the Indigenous inhabitants of America, a militia captain named William Trent had already decided on his own accord to give the tribes in question blankets and a handkerchief from the smallpox ward of Fort Pitt, writing in his journal that “I hope it will have the desired effect.”

We can’t know if Mr. Trent was personally the catalyst, but a smallpox outbreak subsequently began, one of countless that decimated Native American populations before and after, and the tribes lost the war.

One can only imagine how many times this type of war crime was inflicted on Native Americans by colonizers who were not as eager to confess their atrocities to history.

There are few underdog stories as unlikely as how hundreds of devastated tribes – reduced to a tiny fraction of their pre-European contact population by disease, systematic cultural erasure, and relentless genocide executed by wealthy industrialized nation-states – managed to defeat Amherst’s desire to see them “extirpated.”

With this history in mind, the tribal nations of America will not give one inch and will defeat all attempts to unilaterally expose their citizenry to dangerous diseases, especially in pursuit of short-sighted economic profit.

Whether it’s on a lonely stretch of highway in South Dakota, or within the marbled chambers of the United States Supreme Court, America’s tribal nations will defend themselves, their sovereignty, and the health of their elders and most at-risk members.

It would be wise for Governor Noem and President Trump to back down from this morally abominable, legally indefensible, and historically offensive assault on tribal sovereignty.

As Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier said in his statement rejecting Governor Noem’s demands: “Ignorant statements and fiery rhetoric encourage individuals already under stress from this situation to carry out irrational actions.”

In other words, don’t tread on us.  We only desire peace.  From the day the first sovereign-to-sovereign treaties were executed with the United States, our centuries-old prayer has been to live peacefully, free from attack and as we choose. 

Besides, read American history.

You don’t want to pick fights with the Sioux.

Fawn Sharp is the President of the National Congress of American Indians and the fifth-term President of the Quinault Indian Nation. A human rights attorney by training, she is a former state judge and Tribal attorney that has been recognized by the United Nations as one of the global experts on the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Matthew Randazzo V is a former senior state government executive who advises and represents Tribal Nations. He has published four books for publishers like Simon & Schuster and has written for The Seattle Times, The New York Daily News, Corriere Della Sera, The Stranger, and many others.